Rhythm aerobics

Times Staff Writer

In my gym-centric life, I try just about every new class, anything that might be engaging enough to override my inclination to slide by with a minimum of exertion -- yoga by candlelight, tai chi sword fighting, an unfortunate attempt at a disco workout and, once last year, salsa dancing to music provided by a drummer.

I loved the live music, and I didn't want to slack off when the drummer was working so hard. (Plus, I'm a bit rhythmically challenged, and he kept me on beat). Since then, I've been looking for similar workouts and recently found one in West African dance.

The energy of hand-slapped drumming in countries such as Senegal and Mali reminds me of the vibrant song and dance of South Africa, a place I've visited. Before I tried a West African dance class, with djembe drummers, I listened to music from the region with a headset in the office and couldn't stop bobbing my head.

West African dance is a great cardio workout if you can keep up with the drum playing, and good for toning as well. The steps include Rockettes-like front kicks and belly-dancing undulations while moving forward in a deep-squat position.

But West African dance is not the easiest thing to pick up. Although I've taken years of ballet and still take the occasional dance class at the gym, I tried one intense West African dance that was riveting to watch -- but way out of my league. Another class was more my speed.

The easier class was in Long Beach, at MacArthur Park's Homeland Cultural Center, and featured an ensemble of, get this, 11 drummers playing traditional hand-slapped djembe drums or the dundun, or bass drum, along with others.

In a two-hour class I took on a recent Saturday, the dancing got my heart pumping, even though I skulked around in the back of the room while the better dancers practiced their moves in groups of twos and threes in front. As a newcomer, I had to spend a lot of time just trying to remember and follow the choreography.

How could one not get caught up in the charged vibe of Dadisi Sanyika's class? You could feel the vibrations from the drums; you could feel the hardwood floor shake. But here's the tricky part: Your feet are supposed to follow the warp-speed four-count beat, and your upper body is supposed to undulate like a snake to another rhythm -- one that's double time.

"The dance is about releasing your energy because stagnant water becomes rancid," said Sanyika, artistic director for the Dembrebrah, a West African dance and drum ensemble. "Traditional people look at spirit like water -- it needs to flow. You shouldn't hold on to it." In the class I took, which is offered once a week for a suggested $5 donation, we learned a modern dance called kuku, made popular by young people in Senegal, Guinea and other countries. Other classes feature more traditional storytelling dances from Gambia and elsewhere.

In the U.S., the idea of using West African dance as a fitness regimen has taken off with the popularity here of artists such as the late Babatunde Olatunji of Nigeria and Les Ballets Africains, the famed national dance company of the Republic of Guinea. Drum circles with djembes and other instruments also have become popular at places such as Leimert Park, where dancers often join in.

Last year, the San Diego-based American Council on Exercise put West African dance on its list of predicted fitness trends.

In the class I attended, after a short warmup, Sanyika, a professional dancer and choreographer, broke down each move, step by step, for the 18 or so participants (men, women and children wandered in and out of the class). Most of the footwork was no harder than the salsa and merengue steps I've learned at the gym.

Earlier, I had tried a class at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City taught by Titus Fotso, a former lead dancer with the National Ballet of Cameroon.

The $13 class is open to the public and to students at the dance academy. But on a recent Tuesday night, Fotso's class was filled with toned young academy dancers who quickly picked up the complex choreography just by watching him. I felt like an elephant at a garden party.

At 6 feet 7 inches, Fotso is a striking figure, dancing with such exuberance and speed that I was sorry I couldn't follow. The class looked like it would be a blast and whip you into shape in no time, but I needed to find something better suited to my skills.

So I searched the Internet for another local class and found several listed on Web sites, including Africanbeat.com. In Costa Mesa, at Orange Coast College, the dance department trains students in West African dance for careers in either dance or fitness, said department chair Jeff Mayor.

Mayor says the dance is very aerobic and requires considerable mental and physical strength because dancers must isolate both lower and upper body muscles. "If you're really hip to it, you see almost a visualization of the rhythm in the body of the dancer," he said. "To the novice, it looks like they're really grooving to the music, but people who are masters know how to actualize all the rhythms in their body."

I could never reach that point, but I would love to get good enough to use Sanyika's class or another one as a substitute for another hideous session on the step-climbing machine at the gym. With practice, I could see how the dance would leave me with wobbly legs and a sore upper body.

The class would be difficult for anyone who doesn't engage in regular cardio work. It requires the kind of stamina and strength that jumping rope does, with intense movement for short spurts -- steps are taught and then practiced but not put together in one choreographed routine.

It was motivating to watch the experienced dancers, from young children to those 50 and older, including some dressed in African-print lappa wrap skirts.

Tara Evans, 35, wore a lappa and an anklet of traditional cowrie shells. She takes West African dance classes a few times a week as her only form of exercise. Evans, who looks muscular and fit, says her friends can't believe she doesn't lift weights or "cut a meal."

"Every muscle group is working. Your torso, your legs. I've gone home many a time and never realized there's a muscle back here," she said, rubbing the back of her neck.

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Times staff writer Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at renee.tawa@latimes.com

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